Today in Dubai, diplomats attending the UN’s COP28 climate policy summit approved a new global pact calling for the world’s countries to begin moving away from fossil fuels. The agreement is riddled with loopholes, doesn’t address the reality of economic development for many countries, and lacks adequate enforcement mechanisms. However, it is also an importanat step forward in the sense that nations are now formally on the same page now regarding what needs to be done to save our planet.

The agreement urges a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels by midcentury, aiming to halt carbon dioxide emissions by then. It also emphasizes tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030, reducing methane emissions, and accelerating movement toward zero-emission technologies (including nuclear and hydrogen), and it reaffirms the need for all countries to work together to solve this crisis. Adaptation is also a major focus, with new measures recommended to monitor change, improve the ability of nations to respond to change, and protect cultural and biological diversity.

Critics note that fossil fuel agreements around the world have a long history of failure—that the world is addicted to fossil fuels and there’s no reason to believe based on the data that global temperature increases will stay below 1.5C without much more dramatic action. They also note that the cost of transitioning to renewable energy is prohibitive for poorer countries in today’s global economy.

Still, UN agreements like this one are normative instruments intended to focus the world’s attention on key issues. While the language of international diplomacy may often seem devoid of concrete meaning, the intent isn’t to legislate but construct a large tent where everyone can work together toward common goals through their own laws and priorities. It will be important to monitor how the major polluting countries respond to this agreement—namely the US and China. If either country acts in the next few years as though global climate change is less important than national economic development, then the commitment of other countries will instantly evaporate.

Unfortunately, this is a likely outcome given lagging growth in China and the current state of US politics, where half our elected officials believe climate change is a hoax. Fossil fuel reductions won’t happen in time, which means that developing viable carbon dioxide and methane removal technologies and policies is going to be all the more important in the coming years.

Reposted with permission from a December 13, 2023 article on the SCI website.